Perform All Poems: Reflections on a LPR Poetry Reading

Poets are invariably all too familiar with the declaration, “Poetry is dead.” The Washington Post eagerly informed us that as we inaugurated our president, poetry was ceding its position of power*. Many readers were just as eager to address the Post’s error. One of the main point/counter-point arguments between yea- and nay-sayers was the state of the poetry reading. This week Steven Leyva, an LPR contributor and featured reader at the recent Town Square reading and open mic at Minas Gallery, brings us the good news of what thrilled and excited him about this modern poetry reading. As a co-creator a poetry reading series dubbed Kick Assonance, he’s been paying attention where The Washington Post was not:

-“All poems perform.”  Thomas Sayers Ellis

Steven Leyva

Steven Leyva at the Town Square open mic and reading at Minas Gallery. (Photo Credit: Laura Shovan)

The thing about poetry readings is they are really bits of theater in small. Both audience and authors are staged, the verbal costumes (forms!) are shown off, and with a bit of luck everyone suspends their disbelief about the power of poetry in order to be moved.  It doesn’t always work, but when it does, the effect can be spellbinding. An excellent poetry reading can leave you lying awake in bed, attempting to recall certain lines or titles, as you would the name of some handsome stranger who just bought you a drink. And the whole business is great for the authors as well, who in fits of method acting get to act like poets. Though it may seem, with my tongue firmly embedded in my cheek, like I am speaking about a kind artifice, I really mean embodied imagination. The poem made visual art via the poet’s body and voice.  In that mode it seems fitting that Little Patuxent Review partnering with The Town Square Reading Series chose to celebrate its Music themed summer issue last Sunday, August 18th, at Baltimore’s Minas Gallery. And as luck would have it, I was asked to be one of the featured actors/readers.

What’s fun about Minas Gallery as a literary venue is being surrounded by beautiful art in an intimate yet public space.  The vintage clothing store on the first floor works like a quirky foyer for the art gallery on the second floor, where the readings are held. For this reading, instead of paintings, photographs lined the walls. Portraits to be precise. Strange portraits. Plenty of blue-hairs, and I don’t mean older women, and one man with stag antlers. The pieces were lovely, really, and made for an interesting backdrop for the poems, as well as the imagined sense of a larger audience. In terms of actual people, the place was packed, every seat filled, with a few folks standing in the back. Why is it that the “Poetry is dead,” statistics-mad, naysayers can never seem to “quantify” the actual bodies that continue to go to poetry readings?

Minas Gallery packed for poetry.

Minas Gallery packed for poetry.

As a biracial, African American poet I am used to living as a critique and tend take note of audience diversity, inevitably wondering, “Am I the darkest person in the room? The youngest? The only one in a interracial relationship?” What can I say? I like a little meter, a little iamb in my audience. I was not disappointed, and I think that speaks to the strength of LPR as well as The Town Square Reading Series, and The Free State Review whose editors and contributors were in attendance, participating in the open mic. All and all the reading was well set. The poets just had to fill the space with music.

Clarinda Harriss at the Town Hall open mic and reading at Minas Gallery. (Photo Credit: Laura Shovan)

Clarinda Harriss at the Town Square open mic and reading at Minas Gallery. (Photo Credit: Laura Shovan)

I was fortunate to read with such Maryland mainstays as Michael Salcman and Clarinda Harris. One lovely aspect of being a part of a group of featured readers is entering in to that reciprocal space where poems from separate poets seem to act like point and counterpoint, melody and countermelody. Correspondence in air as the poet Ilya Kaminsky calls it. Each of the readers acts as both reader and audience, both costumed monarch and Greek chorus, which is humbling, healthy, and awe inspiring. I believe all of the featured authors would argue for the importance of listening to a poem for what it wants, listening to others by reading, and listening to the imagination, therefore how much more important is it for the same authors to model listening and demonstrate how poets are able to riff off each other in the moment. It reminds me of that old adage, “Acting is reacting.” Poets can and do make use of the sensibility as well. So the Zydeco of my poems talking back to the twelve bar blues in Clarinda Harris’ work, while Michael Salcman’s poem about Bach as fat man sustained like a bass note, created an atmosphere for living verse. But that dialogue wasn’t insular; it didn’t exclude the audience. A joke I made about wanting to be an actor when I was young and realizing that my son (2 years old) is handsome enough to be one, sparked a conversation post reading with audience member about ancestry and striking features. One of the open mic readers mentioned that he was a geologist and said he really enjoyed my poems about place. Can a geologist give a higher compliment to a poet? Other people were enthusiastically chatting about setting poems to music, former poet-teachers, and a whole host of other topics.  In Skin, Inc. Thomas Sayers Ellis suggests that a line breaks multiple times before the final break on the page when written and then voiced by what he calls perform-a-formers. In other words, excellent poets. What I find interesting is seeing the embodiment of those multiple breaks in the proliferation of active, creative conversations after a reading. Conversations about everything that is alive, even grief. Lines were certainly multi-broken at this reading.

(Photo Credit: Laura Shovan)

(Photo Credit: Laura Shovan)

With a bit of “theater” in verse on a Sunday evening in Baltimore, above a vintage clothing store, framed by quirky portraits, with a metrical audience and a few perform-a-formers, collectively another reason was fashioned to transcend our disbelief in the power of poetry. Hopefully in the aftermath author and audience alike encountered in their sleep the name of a handsome stranger buying drinks folded with half remembered lines of poems.

(*See Betteridge’s law of headlines. )

Steven noted the distinct possibility for poets riffing (to borrow a musical term) at readings, finding inspiration from each other in the moment. An interesting contrast is found in Social Justice issue guest editor, Truth Thomas’, account of the differences between the solitary and collaborative nature of music and poetry.

Steven Leyva teaches writing at University of Baltimore and is the recipient of Cobalt Review Poetry Prize. His poems have additionally appeared in Welter and The Light Ekphrastic, and he has published a collection entitled Low Parish. He is the co-creator of the poetry reading series, Kick Assonance.

Book Review: Shirley Brewer’s After Words

Most of us don’t live in hamlets. Even if we did, I suspect we’d still get our news mostly from the Net, from neighbors and co-workers and friends, TV, the diminished but dogged daily papers, the weeklies. Surely not from books. Rarely do we experience our news directly. It’s hand-me-down, a leeching of vitamins from vitamin pills, not whole foods.

Yet After Words somehow defies all this to deliver its news needle-to-vein, turning the reader into a direct witness. It burns in the palm and reads like a teletype. It is a knife thrust. Dispatch after dispatch, Shirley Brewer leaves us no easy way to turn our eyes. So yes, the book is reportorial. Yet it is more: part cenotaph, part elegy to this clearly bright, sweet fellow, this real-life Everyman, someone a lot like you and me. Part of the teeming masses. A citizen. A researcher at Johns Hopkins. A budding medical student.

But two days shy of his twenty-fourth birthday, this Everyman was stripped forcibly of his anonymity and burst unavoidably into the headlines when he bled out on a city pavement, heart punctured by a mugger’s knife. A private life, a public death.

And so this Everyman got a name. Stephen Pitcairn.

Pitcairn’s slaying occurred one block from the author’s home in the Baltimore hamlet known as Charles Village. She never knew him, as most of us remain unknown to each other until fortune, good, bad or notorious, draws attention to us; never knew him, yet in the pages of After Words constructs an incisive and meticulous portrait, perhaps of the victims (yes, plural: “When you kill a son, you kill his mother too,” the poet reminds us), perhaps of our common, most atavistic selves. This isn’t a poetry to turn to for pleasantries.

Disclosure: Like Shirley Brewer, who stitched together the discarnate bulletins that make up After Words, I never knew Stephen Pitcairn; but Shirley I know. She is a deft and professional writer, an acrobat who inches across the high wires of her art with grace and roisterous good humor. If you, too, are acquainted with Brewer’s work – and the public audience is certainly growing for her spirited, haunting, sometimes insistent, always capacious, Thoroughly Modern Shirley voice – then this slender volume may surprise you: the voice is pretty spare here. Appropriately spare. While the grace informs every page, the wry humor has been flensed, scooped clean, replaced with the unhurried, fully permeable nobility of a mourning sensibility. Much in the way of lamentation comes from the victim himself, shade of a shade.

Is it too much to ask
for one piece of chocolate cake?

I grieve for my parents, my sisters,
my co-workers, my friends –
the light they lost when I died.

My mother heard my final cries
over the phone – Mom,
the last word I spoke.

[from “Slain”]

Since she never knew him, Brewer pulls off this act of fine imagination with her back against the wall, especially in the creation of particulars: returning to us someone she never met, delivering him in high, unforgettable contrast. And so reading the poems is something like assessing at close range the gradations of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, a large print of that icon, perfectly developed, which is a sort of magic on the wall. After Words is a sort of magic in the hand: sitting by Adams’s lens, by Brewer’s pen, we rise to become bystanders in the half light preceding the dark.

Brewer, for all the gypsy scarves and fires gladdening her other work, is no necromancer: she knows damned well that she can’t raise the dead, that the dead don’t shine, don’t feel, don’t speak, and ditto inanimate objects, yet she wags her pen and forcefully conjures these selfsame riddles and runes. Stephen rises (so to speak, and speak he does) and shines (“brighter than a full Charles Village moon”). The moon speaks. Even the ruinous knife speaks. The pages of After Words record Brewer’s struggle for reconciliation and meaning, even if only existential, no alchemy, no thaumaturgy, no voodoo to it, the mode elegiac, the voices disconsolate.

In “The Role of Elegy,” Mary Jo Bang addresses the point:

What is elegy but the attempt
To rebreathe life
Into what the gone one once was
Before he grew to enormity.

Come on stage and be yourself,
The elegist says to the dead. Show them
Now – after the fact –
What you were meant to be:

The performer of a live song.
A shoe. Now bow.
What is left but this:
The compulsion to tell.

This poet tells. She invites Stephen to come onstage again and again, invites him to be himself the while, and what emerges is not so much memoir as a grounded and very sentient but unsentimental study.

I live on in blue,
a doctor of sky.

Yet she is not unremitting. When she asks us, in Stephen’s voice

If I could look in a mirror
right now, what would I see?
No one says: Death
becomes you.

she allows him a rare droll moment. But then he continues, absent a whiff of irony

The dead cannot speak –
both lungs and larynx lost.

If another language thrives here,
I have not learned it.

My words still shine like candles
tossed into the white cauldron of moon.

and we are back on track, in the demimonde of the associative. The heart’s blood of poetry. This track leads us to a (technically, emotionally) admirable passage, Stephen’s too-human realization that

This lonely country could be an illusion,
except I remember my casket

lowered into the ground,
severing me

from my sisters drenched in black.

[from “Lifeline”]

“. . . my sisters drenched in black” – did you notice? – there’s the economy of the artist asserting itself. But of course. Of course.

This is real poetry pressed into the service of nobility, not simple art. Deceptively hard to do, yet Brewer, as in everything she’s shared with us, is abundantly equal to the task. But perhaps she had help. Let Stephen’s words abide, then, for the poet, for us, for his family:

Did they think a knife
was enough to part us?

How do I relinquish
the parts of me that will not die?

Invisible, my hand rests
steady on your shoulder.

Shirley Brewer will be a featured reader at the Minás Gallery open mic this Sunday. Admission is $3. Click here for more details. For insight into Shirley’s approach to writing and craft, see her contribution to our Concerning Craft series.